Last week, while stuck in a Lyft on the way to the airport, I heard a U2 album that I had never heard before. By definition a U2 album that I have not heard is anything after 1993's Zooropa. For all I know it could have come out last week or 20 years ago. Though I would not say the music was in any way excellent--or even that I will look it up on Spotify--I was pleasantly surprised to find I liked it. It was probably like how a lapsed Catholic feels who attends a Christmas mass, enjoys it, and thinks, “Maybe… maybe I will come back to this familiar, comforting thing and… well, maybe.”
Everything Zooropa and before I know, or once knew, extremely well. (Everything, that is, except for October, which no one alive knows well.) Between 1987 and 1996, at least five U2 albums were in my regular rotation.* Then, at some point before Pop came out in 1997, I stopped listening.
OK, to be honest I never listened to Pop. But that’s OK. You haven't either. We all read Lester Bangs's review in Creem and decided that Puff Daddy and Candlebox were music now. No matter what they called their new album, U2 was no longer pop.
I still respect U2, if only from afar, and I still admire Bono. Like many Americans of Irish descent born in the 1970s, Bono was [deep, embarrassed sigh] one of the models of manhood for me. First, he was a lead singer of a popular rock band. That’s key, of course, but so was Mick Jagger and I never wanted to be someone like Mick for more than a song. Bono was different from most frontmen in that he clearly gave a shit about the world, and especially about civil rights. In the 1980s the civil rights movement was in its all-over-but-the-shouting phase, and what people were shouting then really mattered.
Enter Bono: pony tail and earrings and iron jaw and cosmetic guitar, (he can't actually play one, right?), a legit Irish guy, (I cannot stress how important that is to many Irish-Americans), with the fifty-mile stare over crowds well into the tens of thousands, Bono was infinitely cool, and he was shouting “One more in the name of love!” in arenas all over the world. Bono showed a lot of teenagers in the 1980s that you could be a cool person and a decent person, and the two roles don't have to conflict.
The argument against Bono is that he’s a preachy narcissist who cares more about himself than any cause he supports. All that jet-setting for AIDS prevention, all the shaking hands with world leaders at Davos in his ridiculous glasses—just another stage for his big ego to strut upon. Well, lots of people join rock bands to seem cool. Few of them campaign against third-world debt. So if he is a narcissist, I hope more famous people catch his strain of it.
Whatever his merits or sins, he's no longer a role model for me, and that's possibly another reason I no longer listen to his band. During the post-Zooropa lull, many of us young U2 fans had our own changes. We stopped being teens and became bona fide men and women. We no longer needed his example. As for his music, we left it for more complex art that suits an adult's life. The people I know who are still huge U2 fans are also the type to claim Say Anything as their favorite movie. To stay with the art of one's teens is a sort of arrested aesthetic development. It's clinging to youth. It's clutching the past.
On the other hand: since 1997 U2 may have been pumping out masterpieces and I wouldn't know because I have not listened to them. I guess there's that.
Even still, there's no sense in keeping a strong but ill-informed opinion to myself. (And as long as I am making admissions, I have listened to and enjoyed All That You Can't Leave Behind. I got a copy as a Christmas gift in 2000. I just could not find a way to make that exception flow within the opening paragraph. I leave that fact here so that I may ruin the ending instead of the beginning.) I should have asked my Lyft driver what she thought of the album. She was singing along after all. I could have asked which one it was, how it compared to my own top five (below), and where she'd place U2 on Robert Christgau's Springsteen Spectrum ®: "An important minor artist or a rather flawed and inconsistent major one." But I can't. She lives in Los Angeles and I will never see her again. I may just have to wade through U2's post-1993 discography and form my own opinion and... well, maybe.
* The five would be, in order of rockingness:
5. Unforgertable Fire;
4. Achtung Baby;
2. Joshua Tree;
The list is definitive.